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Mark Hatcher’s work in CU Buffs’ original wishbone set stage for title-chasing QBs

Schematic shift in ’85 laid groundwork for CU glory years

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It’s no wonder Mark Hatcher was a perfect fit for the wishbone attack Colorado football coach Bill McCartney decided to implement before the 1985 season.

Thirty-five years later, the quarterback who set the table for the glorious success to come in the Buffaloes’ program still is making the right reads on the fly. When the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on American society in March, Hatcher, a two-decade veteran as the manager of a Bally Total Fitness, recognized immediately a change in his game plan was necessary.

In the six months since, Hatcher has reinvented himself as a life coach/counselor for at-risk youngsters at Ridge View Academy.

“Right now, with the coronavirus, the fitness world closed down a bit and I changed my career,” Hatcher said. “I’m doing some counseling and life coaching at an open-door detention center, where some of the kids are sentenced. I try to help them get back into society.”

It hardly was the first time Hatcher made an adjustment on the fly.

Daily Camera file
Colorado quarterback Mark Hatcher ran for two TDs against CSU in 1985.

On Sept. 7, 1985, Hatcher was under center for the Buffs’ season-opening 23-10 win against Colorado State, setting the stage for the program’s first winning season since 1978. More importantly, however, it was the first game of the new wishbone option offense implemented by McCartney who, going into his fourth season at CU, realized a change was necessary to revive what was a moribund program.

Rarely has a change of philosophy worked so spectacularly. By the end of the decade, option quarterbacks Sal Aunese and Darian Hagan would help lead CU into national prominence, culminating with the 1990 national championship. It was a solid starting debut for Hatcher — he gained 62 yards rushing on 12 carries with two touchdowns against CSU while going 3-for-9 through the air — yet even then he believed the schematic shift would prove fruitful.

“I think it was a work in progress, but I still remember it went really well,” Hatcher said. “I thought we picked it up really well, and once it became game time we ran it like we always have. I think we were all new to it, but it kind of worked just like it did at practice. After that, it was easy going. It let me be the starting quarterback, so I didn’t care what I was doing.”

Hatcher, of course, no longer was the quarterback by the time the Buffs started making regular appearances in the national top 25, yet he still feels pride at helping to lay the groundwork for what the CU program soon became under McCartney. In fact, years later Hatcher was approached by championship-era defensive back Tim James, who was hosted by Hatcher during a recruiting visit to CU. James gifted Hatcher with one of his back-to-back Big 8 championship rings.

“He kind of surprised me with it, and he told me a couple things,” Hatcher said. “First, he said he probably wouldn’t have come here if not for me and my class. He also said to me, which always has stayed in my heart, he said, ‘If there is anybody in this program that deserves a ring but doesn’t have one, it’s you.’ I wear (the ring) proudly.”

Future CU head coach Gary Barnett was the Buffs’ quarterbacks coach at the time. He concurs that without Hatcher laying the groundwork, the greatness of Aunese and Hagan under center likely never happens.

“During the spring, when we saw that he had great speed and had instincts with the ball,” Barnett said of Hatcher. “He was not a pro-type passer and we played him at halfback the year before. He’s the one who could put the explosiveness in the offense. Craig (Keenan) and Wheels (Rick Wheeler) were guys who could execute a part of the offense. They could make it work. They were more than adequate, but poor Keenan; he’s a Canadian guy and he had come in to throw the ball and here we are changing this offense and pretty much Wheels was the same way. They didn’t fit but they made themselves fit into that offense.

“We didn’t have anybody else that could run that thing. For ’85 and ’86, he made it go. It doesn’t go if we don’t have Mark Hatcher.”